Creative Writing alumni, faculty enjoy success
By Bonnie Blankinship and Ian Robinson
Monica McFawn Robinson
BGSU alumna Monica McFawn Robinson didn’t expect to win the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction when she submitted her collection of short stories, “Bright Shards of Someplace Else,” to the University of Georgia Press.
She was using the contest deadline as a motivational tool to finish the last piece in the collection, which she had been writing off and on since 2008. Every year the highly respected contest is flooded with up to 300 manuscripts, with only two judges to choose two winners. Once Robinson, a 2001 graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, completed her work, she sent it to Georgia on a whim, she said — and despite virtually indomitable odds, she won. “Bright Shards of Someplace Else” is forthcoming from the press this year.
Robinson’s stories are inspired by the world around her— from the news or stories that she’s heard. She said she enjoys writing about things she doesn’t know because she likes to learn. For example, one story centers on a character trying to solve a math proof. Robinson, who doesn’t like math, forced herself to learn enough about it to write the story. She likes to imagine and depict characters who are the opposite or different from her in some way.
Robinson isn’t the only BGSU graduate making waves in the creative writing world. Also winning a major national book award for her fiction was Master of Fine Arts graduate Tessa Mellas ’05, who received the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for her debut collection of short stories, "Lungs Full of Noise," published in 2013 by the prestigious University of Iowa Press. Mellas has returned to BGSU this year as Distinguished Visiting Writer to work with students in the program.
Mellas described her stories as based in a world that “gives readers a sense of realism with elements of the fantastical.” She draws on experiences from her own life as well as her students’ lives and often focuses on the transition between girl- and womanhood.
Following their Creative Writing Program mentors’ footsteps, both Mellas and Robinson have gone on to become creative writing teachers themselves, Robinson at Grand Valley State University and Mellas at Ohio State University. While both love to write, they also love to teach. As Mellas said, “It’s cool to surround yourself with people who love words and sentences.” And although Robinson concedes that creative writing can be tough, she hopes her students will “see the value in their writing” and be more confident in their ability.
"Faculty and alumni are not only employed but winning awards for their work."Mellas submitted her manuscript to just three publishers before the University of Iowa called her with the news it was accepted — 30 minutes before she had to teach a class. “I expected to shop the manuscript around for years,” she said, and now feels “embarrassed to tell my friends” about her win because “it makes getting published sound easy.”
The University’s Creative Writing Program continually gives the lie to the old saw that there’s not much you can do with an English degree. Its faculty and alumni are not only employed but winning awards for their work.
The growing reputation of the program has earned it the No. 30 spot in the nation among 150 full-residency Master of Fine Arts programs, according to the 2014 MFA Index in Poets and Writers magazine. This ties BGSU with Purdue University and puts it in the company of programs at Columbia (No. 26) and Johns Hopkins (No. 25).
The program also ranks No. 15 in the country for job placement of MFA graduates.
"Creativity is our heritage, and the arts are at the core of that." — Sharona Muir“It’s a big source of pride to me that we serve our region very well,” said Dr. Sharona Muir, department chair. “A good core of our undergraduate students come from the Greater Midwest and many are from families where they are the first to get a college degree. I’m proud that gifted young people who have aspirations can get the degree and go places with it.
“Good writers are in short supply,” she observed. “Even in industry and the private sector, they’re looking for people who have good English skills and can communicate.”
But what may be even more important in landing a job, she noted, is the creative edge. “I read recently that Silicon Valley is looking for artists,” Muir said. “It’s what our country was founded on — the invention of a new kind of country — and what kind of society we want to be. Creativity is our heritage, and the arts are at the core of that.”
Muir attributes the success of the program mainly to its small size, which allows faculty to give students their undivided attention. The undergraduate program typically has between 90 and 100 majors (this year there are 93, plus 33 minors). The graduate program has 20 students altogether, with five fiction and five poetry majors accepted each year.
The ratio of local to non-local is reversed in the graduate program, Muir said. Students in the Master of Fine Arts program come from all over the country and the world and provide a good balance and exposure to other cultures. In the graduate cohort of 10 students, only two came from the BGSU region.
Individualized attention is integral to the philosophy of the program. Both Mellas and Robinson look back fondly on their time at BGSU. Mellas described the curriculum as “the program I needed,” describing the atmosphere in her classes as “nurturing.” She credits her professors with “always being open to students” and never being too busy to speak with or tutor them.
Robinson said she credits her faculty members with seeing her potential and pushing her to do better. An admitted “procrastinator and part-time slacker,” she said they “knocked me out of my slacker mode, and made me want to work.”
The level of close reading and critique student work receives would not be possible in larger classes, Muir said. “Every artwork has a dream behind it, and an urgency. To get that I have to be able to understand what the student is trying to say, and be completely focused. It’s the complete opposite of multiple choice. We want to provide them with the skills and background to give them the direction to go in, but I need to have the time to see behind to what the person really wants to say. As teachers, we’re not just looking at a product and correcting flaws — we’re looking at the person and the dream.”
An important goal of the program is to immerse students in the bigger world of writing around them, she added, and make them lifelong members of a community of writers. The program’s requirements are also structured so that students take electives in other disciplines. “We use the University as a wonderful resource for writing,” Muir said, noting, “No art happens in a vacuum.”
The Creative Writing Program faculty are models of productivity and of that writing community. From 2011 through this year, all six faculty members have published or will publish new books, whose subjects span the imaginary and real worlds, from the American West to the Baltic and beyond.
The fall of 2013 brought Wendell Mayo’s “The Cucumber King of Kedainiai,” six vignettes of contemporary life in post-Soviet Lithuania. The collection was published in October by Subito Press, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and won the Subito Press Award.
Mayo’s first book about the country, “In Lithuanian Wood,” published in 1999, reflects the “sudden welling-up of a desire for independence and freedom,” he said. “The Cucumber King” sees Lithuanians in the globalized present, where “in a country formerly of 3.7 million, 700,000 have moved away and are not coming back.”
Dr. Lawrence Coates’ fiction is typically grounded in the American West, but recently he won an award for a story set in northwest Ohio. “Bats,” at only 500 words, won the Barthelme Prize for Short Prose competition. Named for groundbreaking author Donald Barthelme, the award is presented by Gulf Coast literary journal, based at the University of Houston. Coates’s story will be published in the spring edition of the journal.
His 2012 novel “The Garden of the World” relates the struggle between a father and two sons in the fertile wine country of California during the era of Prohibition. Published by the University of Utah Press, the book is rich with detail about grape cultivation and the people who nurtured the region’s nascent wine industry. It won the College English Association of Ohio’s Nancy Dasher Award for the best book of creative writing by English faculty statewide.
Coates’s two previous works of historical fiction, “The Blossom Festival,” chosen by Barnes and Noble for its Discover Great New Writers Program, and “The Master of Monterey,” were also set in California.
Muir’s latest work reflects her intense interest in science, biology and “all the facts of this incredible thing called life.” Her upcoming “Invisible Beasts: Tales of the Animals That Go Unseen Among Us,” inhabits a place somewhere between fact and fiction and is based on Muir’s posthumanist view that humans are animals among animals, with a particular set of qualities, but not superior, and that “animal life is mindful. The mind’s life is animal.” In “Invisible Beasts,” Muir draws upon her fascination with medieval bestiaries, which contained both real and imaginary creatures, to create her personal bestiary of invisible creatures based on real scientific fact. The book is due out this summer from Bellevue Literary Press of New York University.
Among Muir’s previous books is The Book of Telling, a memoir of her investigation of her father’s secret role in the birth of modern-day Israel. Published by Random House, it also won the Nancy Dasher Award, in 2007.
On the poetry side, Dr. Larissa Szporluk’s most recent book is "Traffic with MacBeth," published in 2011 by Tupelo Press. In these poems, Szporluk moves away from her previous series colored by Italian history and geography to the more wild and harsh climes of Shakespeare’s character, with works described by reviewers as lyrical and incantatory, dark and violent. Described by the publisher as “baroque in their sweep of high style and low slang, melody and dissonance, these poems use shifting animate and inanimate speakers and surrealist leaps to convey human brutality, the vulnerability of women and children, madness, and the struggle to escape the limitations of this world.”
A 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, Szporluk’s previous titles include 1998′s “Dark Sky Question,” winner of the Barnard Poetry Prize; “Isolato,” winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize (2000); “The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind” (2003), and “Embryos and Idiots” (2007). Her poetry has been anthologized in “Best American Poetry 2001,” “New American Voices,” “20th-Century American Poetry” and “Contemporary Poetry in the U.S.,” among others.
Creative Writing instructor and MFA graduate Abigail Cloud’s collection of poems, “Sylph,” has already won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize. “Sylph” will be published this spring by the highly respected Pleiades Press. Her poetry has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel and other literary journals. With a background in dance, Cloud is interested in combining choreography with poetry, and the effect that forms of the body have on the written word. The editor-in-chief of the University’s well-respected Mid-American Review, Cloud is the lead organizer of the program’s annual Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, which typically draws hundreds of participants from the area. She also advises Prairie Margins, the program’s undergraduate literary journal.
Also having won awards for her writing is senior lecturer Theresa Aleshire Williams, a poet, fiction writer and essayist whose chapbook of poetry, “The Galaxy to Ourselves,” came out in 2012. She is the author of the novel “The Secret of Hurricanes,” (2002) and has been published in a number of magazines, including five pieces in The Sun (edited by Sy Safransky), plus stories and poems in journals such as Chattahoochee Review, Hunger Mountain and Gargoyle. A prolific writer, she has published nearly 100 poems, stories and essays since 2002. Her most recent interests lie in outsider art, folk art, and comics and graphic novels.
Visit the Creative Writing website to view other books published by graduates of the program.